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Golden Knights deliver in biggest game of season against Avalanche

The age-old adage of big-time players making big-time players never fails. Max Pacioretty proved, yet again, he is that big-time player.

There may not be a “clutch” factor in the NHL, but Pacioretty is debunking that myth after he scored his fourth overtime-winning goal of the season Saturday, a 3-2 win for the Vegas Golden Knights at the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.

The victory kept the Golden Knights in first place in the West Division, with Colorado continuing to breathe down their collective necks despite getting a point out of it.

“It was important, but it was important to maintain our composure,” Pacioretty said. “A team like that is going to have spurts of creating and make life hard on you.”

Pacioretty scored 1:56 into overtime after his attempt hit the post, with Alex Tuch charging the net to his right. Pacioretty cleaned up the rebound for his team-leading 18th goal of the season.

The Golden Knights delivered in their biggest game of the season. Sure, there’s 24 games to go, but the Golden Knights needed a response after being smacked 5-1 on Thursday at Ball Arena, highlighted by a four-goal second period.

“The goal was to play the way we’re capable of playing, to execute the way we’re capable of executing,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “I’ll be honest with you; if we lost in overtime, I would’ve been happy with the response anyway. That’s how you beat a good team on the road.”

The wheels came off Thursday, and appeared to do so again 1:16 into the game when Joonas Donskoi toe-dragged around Brayden McNabb and beat Marc-Andre Fleury to make it 1-0 Colorado.

Alec Martinez’s power-play goal at 16:32 of the opening period tied it 1-1, but the Avalanche responded 1:03 later when Devon Toews got open in the high slot and made it 2-1.

The Golden Knights outshot Colorado 12-10 in the first period, but it felt like Colorado was on its way to dominating yet again.

Rather than Thursday, the Golden Knights slowed the game down. Trying to beat the Avalanche on the rush, when they have speed on all four lines and even on their defense, was not going to happen.

The Golden Knights played the final 40-plus minutes with patience; cycling it around in the offensive end, setting up shop and getting traffic in front of Avalanche goalie Philipp Grubauer. That was evident on William Carrier’s tying goal 3:40 into the second period.

It was a microcosm of how well the fourth line played on Saturday. The meat-grinders line had six attempts (one being a goal) while only allowing two. The top line of Pacioretty, Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone struggled (8-18) while being on the ice for both Colorado goals.

It’s a simple dump-and-chase from that line, but it turns into moving it behind the net and crashing in front. The puck squeaks out to Tomas Nosek, who finds Shea Theodore in the high slot. The rolling puck is enough for Carrier to get a piece of it for his second goal in eight days.

“We were holding onto pucks a little bit. We had much better forecheck,” Pacioretty said. “I think rather than throwing pucks away and being one-and-done and allowing them to build up speed and attack us on the counter-attack, they have to stop, come back in their end and defend. Ultimately, that’s the only way to play a team like that.”

The Golden Knights outshot the Avalanche 20-13 in the final two periods. Even though Colorado got dangerous looks in the third period, Vegas got back to doing the simple things defensively; close the gaps (as best they can against the Nathan MacKinnon line) and close shooting lanes in front of Fleury.

“We knew we had to flip the script from Game 1,” DeBoer said. “We didn’t spend any time in their end in Game 1. We went out and did that.”

Speaking of Fleury, DeBoer went away from the goalie rotation with Robin Lehner and started Fleury for the second consecutive game. Fleury made 22 saves and won his 483rd game and also won for the first time in three starts.

“It was an easy decision,” DeBoer said. “He’s carried us here the last month and a half. He deserved to start the two most important games so far this season.”

Never mind the need to bounce back from being ran out of Colorado’s barn on Thursday. The Golden Knights played their style of hockey by neutralizing Colorado’s speed. These last two games, Saturday in particular, have been playoff-like.

The Golden Knights got back to their game, and showed why they’re in that Cup contending window.

“We know first place was on the line against a team that would have jumped us,” Pacioretty said. “That’s the measuring-stick team around the league that everyone talks about. … We wanted to show we could play with a team like that.”